In this blog, I focus on characterisation and setting in 'In and Out of Step' as a means of exploring the barriers to belonging and overcoming them. Linked to this is the potential of an individual to bring people together and lower if not remove barriers through the use of language, thereby enriching the group. As noted in the earlier blogs on Belonging, Cassie Sleight, in seeking a seachange at the start of her teaching career, had also chosen exile for compelling, personal reasons. She then found herself confronted by a range of unexpected issues in her new workplace.
Tacit resistance to the inclusion of the women teachers in what had been one of the last bastions of male supremacy at Keimera High was a major barrier to her finding acceptance and her place within the faculty team. The cramped physical conditions in the staffroom, the hostile behaviours of her male colleagues, the related withdrawal of collegiate support and corporate knowledge about workplace practice, rioting students in her classes, and demanding workload exhausted any remaining reserve Cassie may have had to deal with further challenges. She didn't even have a personal workspace within the staffroom because of inadequate facilities. These factors made her feel excluded and contributed to her feelings of alienation.
So, what did Cassie do to overcome those barriers? Overwhelmed by the foreignness of the setting and without the option of returning home, she persevered at working for change despite feeling isolated and, at times, sickened by her situation. At work, she prioritised the obstacles before her, with survival in the classroom as the foremost obstacle to overcome. She then adopted a trial and error approach to problem solving in the classroom. She shelved everything else for the 'too hard basket' and avoided contact with the men at the heart of other issues.
Solutions to her classroom predicament were not found readily. During this challenging time, Cassie found relief from the compounding trauma of her predicament through the familiar ritual of everyday life and the developing connections with the people in her new world as well as in the weekly phone contact with her parents. This sustained her in her struggle.
'She saw little of her male colleagues beyond the blur of the rush (to and from class). Samantha shared a wry comment whenever they passed, usually eliciting an unexpected laugh. Rajes, serene in her progress, always took time for encouragement.' (p45)
'In the tradition of generations before them, George and Minna (Madison) had afternoon tea on the front verandah in the summer months. For Cassie, it was a period of respite from her workday stresses.'
Cassie made progress in dealing with the challenges confronting her only after she changed her way of thinking about and seeing the opposition to and exclusion of her. When she recast her students as individuals rather than as a wall of resistance or as a group of people who outnumbered her, she made headway in gaining control and claiming her place as a teacher. I've used wall here as it represents an impassable barrier. In this case, her mindset had been one of the barriers to Cassie making satisfactory connections to her students. Similarly, Cassie's ability to deal with the wider issues of the workplace grew out of her developing confidence in the classroom setting, a growth in her positive self-image, and her evolving sense of identity - all aspects of mindset.
Samantha Smith, another new teacher in the English faculty in a similar predicament to Cassie, functioned initially as a facilitator for Cassie in dealing with workplace issues and in bringing her into the faculty team. Apart from sharing her ironic view of their workplace through language when they passed during the day, Samantha advised in a shared time after work:
"At times, there is .... fellowship? You'll find it a lot better now than at the start. Talbut is inclusive not to mention incredibly supportive. Make the effort to spend more time in here in the breaks."
"Not good enough. You're acting like teaching is a prison sentence without time off for good behaviour!"
In this dialogue, Samantha's perspective challenged Cassie's view of the men in the faculty, portraying the staffroom as a positive experience where there was fellowship, inclusion, and support. The scene illustrates that an individual can bring people together by reframing mindset.
The characterisation of Samantha Smith also provides a contrasting perspective on dealing with barriers that prevent belonging in a workplace. Like a number of women, Samantha viewed her sexual allure as coinage in the workplace. She used titillation to reduce her male colleagues' hostility to her presence when in the overcrowded staffroom.
Drawing on knowledge from experiences in other workplaces, Samantha targeted Mark Talbut as a potential ally. She relied heavily on her growing relationship with him and his status and authority as 2IC to gain some control over her defiant classes and to cement her place within the staffroom. She advised Cassie to follow her lead. For Cassie, however, the use of sex as coinage was counter to her character. Cassie did accept Samantha's advice to use Talbut as a mentor though.
Real change in attitudes to and inclusion of the women in the faculty team took time. It was the outcome of a series of shared experiences and developing rapport within the workplace. This is clearly demonstrated in the lead up to the Fickle Finger of Fate Award as well as in the scene itself.
You will find the complete discussion in Belonging: A Related Text Companion: In and out of Step. You can buy the companion from this website or fromAmazon